Frank Rickman: “Red-Clay Michelangelo”

by Mick Coleman

Frank Rickman (1924 – 2004) was, in many ways, a modern-day Davy Crockett.  Some will recall his adventures manhandling moonshiners, wild bears and boars.  Others will remember him for carving the Kingwood and Sky Valley Resorts from mountainous terrain.  Rickman also will be remembered as the wagon master for a wagon train which travelled across the state as part of a campaign to regild the State Capitol’s dome.  Arguably less well appreciated is how Rickman used his mountain-man skills to make Rabun County a popular destination for the movie industry.  

Rickman with his wife Sarah in front of the bicentennial wagon, 1976 Rickman with his wife Sarah in front of the bicentennial wagon, 1976
 Rabun County and Frank Rickman were first introduced to Hollywood during the filming of The Great Locomotive Chase, a 1956 Walt Disney movie.  The movie recreated an 1862 event in which Union soldiers stole a Confederate locomotive with plans to race it up the Western & Atlantic Railroad, destroying vital infrastructure along the way.  Their goal was to prevent Southern reinforcements from reaching Chattanooga, thereby making it easier for the approaching Union Army to take the city.  The plot failed after Confederate forces gave chase, captured the soldiers, and hanged them as spies.

The actor, Fess Parker, is featured on a promotion photo for The Great Locomotive Chase. The actor, Fess Parker, is featured on a promotion photo for The Great Locomotive Chase.
Unfortunately, even before filming could begin, the production crew faced a challenge.  The large ship cranes used in California to load two “stout” locomotives onto railroad flatcars for transport were, of course, not available in Rabun County.  Rickman overcame this challenge by building a sidetrack with an earthen ramp, backing the flatcars up to the ramp, and off-loading the locomotives onto the new rails.  He also built sets, scouted filming locations, and served as a “go between” for the Disney film crew and local citizens.

Disney was so impressed with Rickman’s ability to solve production challenges that he offered him a job with his California studio.  Although Rickman declined the job offer, a little over a decade later he once again would come to Hollywood’s rescue. 

A scene from Deliverance A scene from Deliverance
While The Great Locomotive Chase was a successful movie, it was Deliverance (1972) that represented the turning point for Frank Rickman, Rabun County and Georgia as players in the movie industry. For those needing a refresher, Deliverance told the story of four suburban dwellers who travel to the North Georgia Mountains to whitewater canoe down a wild river.  Filmed along the Chattooga, the movie is best remembered for its spectacular scenery, a banjo duel, and a violent rape scene.  It was nominated for three Academy Awards and has been a topic of analysis in numerous publications and a source of controversy among some Rabun citizens.

Rickman’s contribution to the success of Deliverance is undisputed, leading Georgia’s first Film Commissioner to describe him as a “red-clay Michelangelo.”  Not only did Rickman scout idyllic locations for filming, he built sets, served as a technical adviser for filming along the Chattooga, recruited local talent, and had his voice dubbed in for one actor who failed to master a “hillbilly” accent.  It was also Rickman who suggested the notorious “squeal like a pig” line to highlight the brutality of the rape scene.  As he later explained, the director asked him “What do mountain people think is the lowest critter … (he responded) the hog.” 

Rickman with the Bronco used in Deliverance Rickman with the Bronco used in Deliverance
Despite misgivings by some about the movie, Rickman defended it noting, “Deliverance has done more for this county than anything else.  People … thought that Georgia was just cotton fields until that movie.”  Time has validated his point.

Following the success of Deliverance, in 1973 the Georgia Film Commission (now the Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Office) was created to promote movie projects in the state.  As a member of the commission, Rickman became what the Clayton Tribune called “the most wanted man in the North Georgia film industry,” serving as a liaison for film crews in search of picturesque camera-ready locations.  It is in large part due to Rickman’s early work with the movie industry, upon which others built, that Georgia today ranks among the top five states for film and television production.  For Rabun County, the economic boost that film crews bring to the area during filming is multiplied when moviegoers, impressed with the scenery presented on screen, also visit and contribute to the county’s tourism and hospitality industries.  The same can be said for Rabun County’s popularity with retirees and second-home owners.

Bull Sluice rapid on the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River Bull Sluice rapid on the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River
Deliverance also was responsible for the emergence of whitewater rafting in North Georgia, as well as the Chattooga’s designation as a Wild and Scenic River.  This designation, which placed the river under the protection and management of the U.S. Forest Service, has made the Chattooga “… the crown jewel of the southern whitewater rivers,” as noted in one travel guide.  Such praise seems a fitting tribute to Frank Rickman’s role in promoting Rabun County’s wild beauty on the big and small screen.

Help us plan for
Rabun County’s Bicentennial Celebration

Special Exhibit:
Rabun’s Twentieth Century in Review

At the turn of the twentieth century, Rabun County remained largely isolated from the outside world. This would change dramatically with the coming of a railroad which also brought tourism, logging and dam building.
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